Investigate the ways in which hip hop music appeals to male and female audiences
Investigate the ways in which hip hop music appeals to male and female audiences, with reference to 50 cent’s Amusement Park, attempting to account for its popularity despite its sexist representations of women In this essay I shall be investigating the ways in which hip hop songs appeal to both male and female audiences, with specific reference to Amusement Park (released May 8, 2007) by 50 cent (real name Curtis Jackson), and its music video. I will attempt to account for the huge popularity of this artist, and others of the genre, despite the apparent sexism displayed in his songs.
Firstly I shall look at how hip hop has gone from primarily an underground phenomenon to having mainstream status, as recounted by Bakari Kitwana (2005). From when hip hop originated, it was always an alternate culture for black youngsters to turn to. During the late 1980s economic recession, many Americans were still living in poverty: unskilled workers faced poorer wages than before, resulting in a sense of alienation from mainstream America.
Although they had achieved equality in legal status, there were still plenty of economic and social problems facing black youth. Not only was hip hop an artistic way of expressing and making public these issues, but also provided a sense of culture those less privileged. Concerns could be voiced through the medium of music and radio stations, which, although primarily were by and for black people, still very much of the white working class population, who were also facing similar problems and suffering from the same detachment from the mainstream.
In the late 80s powerful black icons began emerging, such as Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and major bands like Public Enemy who produced ‘politically charged lyrics, criticism of the media, and active interest in the concerns of the African American community’1. It soon became hard for white audiences to ignore hip hop culture. The East-West coast feud between artists from either side of America, leading to the eventual murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG also brought both urban issues and its music in to public light. Gangster rap was a predominant subgenre which was responsible for expressing shocking views (notably rap group N.
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W. A. ‘s F*** tha police) and portraying the more violent and misogynistic side of hip hop culture. While it still receives a lot of backlash, hip hop has become increasingly mainstream and popular. One way to account for the popularity of “Amusement Park” is to look at the representations of women in the video on its own, and to draw conclusions from those alone. The girls are shown against a very minimalistic background, only with the “ride” which they are on. This puts the focus on to their bodies and faces, increasing our sense of their sexuality.
Both the shots of the girls and their poses are explicitly constructed, as their poses are unnatural and staged. They often look directly in to the camera, suggesting an awareness of the audience’s voyeuristic perspective. A shot which specifically give a sense of degradation is one in which a girl is shot almost directly from above, her body twisted unnaturally on the ground, looking on command as the camera focuses on her. This appeals to the male audience by making them feel that the girl is putting out her sexuality for the benefit of the viewers i. e. he individual watcher. It might seem that this video is primarily aimed at males however; the huge success of 50 cent in the mainstream implies that his apparent misogyny is not only accepted but embraced by a large audience.
One explanation would be to accept the belief of female sexuality being masochistic, and that the gratification a female gets from the video is that of relating herself to the girls in the video who are enjoying being a sexual object. However, French feminist Luce Irigaray questions the idea the traditional view of female sexuality: … omen in the sexual imaginary of Western culture have always been a male fantasy; hence maschocism is something forced on women by culture, not a quality inherent within them. Thus, women don’t define their own sexuality, desire, or pleasure2. If we bear in mind the amount of competition that is around now in the hip hop industry and the selection of media now readily available, through the wide range of music channel, and the relatively recent development of the ability to watch music on sites such as youtube and yahoo, audience could be said to become more active in the way they choose and thus perceive their media.
Taking Irigaray’s perspective, female audiences do not necessarily need to read the text in masochistic way, and this broadening of choice in their media allows them to take an alternate stance on such texts: that of a more active one. If this is the case however, it does not necessarily mean that female audiences reject Amusement Park, only that there is room to interpret the representations in a more ironic way and as I shall discuss later on, the text itself encourages this type of reading. The next issue I shall look at is the extent to which 50 cent is taken as a serious role model by his audiences.
His background would imply that he is the stereotype of gangster: his mother gave birth to him at 15, was involved in cocaine dealing, and was murdered at the age of 23. 50 cent himself began dealing in crack/cocaine and taking guns to school. Before the release of his first album with Columbia Records, he survived being shot 9 times, including once in the mouth, which led to him being dropped by the record company. This would seem highly ironic, given that to a large extent the idea of an authentic gangster was what selling rap records in the first place (artists such as Snoop Dogg, The Notorious B. I.
G and Tupac Shakur had a history of crime and drugs; and the murders of the latter two helped to bring hip hop in to mainstream media). It is interesting to ask whether it was the songs that consumers were buying and continue to do so, (his debut album, get rich or die tryin’ selling 12 million albums worldwide) or the now glamorised image of celebrity gangster which is currently present, despite the fact that he currently lives in an $18,500,000 Mansion. He himself admits to the fact that his image portrayed in his music is separate from him as a person: … all the things I say are good, if you watch what I do.
What I say on record is entertainment; but what I’m actually doing with my life and the things I’ve had the opportunity to do is what makes me inspiring3 Although evidently he has achieved a great deal for himself, in the media he rarely expresses himself personal side, and even has made attempts to reinforce his gangster image, and example being: I’ve been in situations where either it was me or somebody else, and I handled my business. 4 (2003) However, in the later interview he does deny any assumptions: … people associate me with gun violence, when I was the one who got shot5
This suggest that Curtis himself does have an expectation that audiences will be able to distinguish between his image portrayed in the media, and the reality of his life, but does little to counteract the negative images. Is he also being nai??ve in thinking that the audience will automatically realise this, and not model his violent and sexist lyrics? There is clearly some sort of awareness in public audiences, both black and white, as shown by findings by the Black Youth Project: Over half of youngsters between the ages of 15 – 25 strongly agree with the statement that “Rap music videos portray Black women in bad and offensive ways. 6 The huge success of 50 cent however, seems to contradict this, which would seem to imply that audiences are in fact able to separate this misogyny from the rapper himself. However, it could also be argued that this is merely a way of excusing such portrayals. Considering the artist’s earlier works, such as Get in my car containing the lyrics “I got no pickup lines / I stay on the grind / I tell the hoes all the time / Bitch get in my car” and the highly pornographic music video for Disco Inferno, it is harder to take such things lightly. A widely quoted statistic is that 70% of hip hop consumers are in fact white.
Although it is interesting to note that no accurate source has been cited for this statistic, hip hop is undeniably a prominent part of mainstream white music culture. Before, when the genre was a political move as much as it was a music genre, a chance for black underprivileged youth to voice their concerns for the culture, it was something that both black and white people could understand in relation to their own lives. The current state of hip hop is that we ‘look through the keyhole into a violent, sexy world of “money, ho’s and clothes”‘ as described by Justin Ross (2007).
This may be an accurate description of the way that audiences perceive such videos, given that 50 cent’s music refers to neither the real problems, past or present, of black culture, nor to the life which Curtis leads. It would also account for the general acceptance of these representations, if the audience is distanced from what is shown in the videos: issues of sexism and violence are far less relevant outside black urban society and it is therefore easier for a white consumer to take the videos solely as entertainment.
It is also important to remember that while the majority of hip hop artists are black, it is predominantly marketed and controlled by a white industry, as Bakari describes (p46) in which the importance of an authentic representation of black culture is of little importance compared with supplying the public with texts which they will buy in to, as evidently the sex appeal of the videos is an important aspect. The next thing I shall look at is the level of awareness of the sexism in both the video itself, and the audience it is aimed at. There are many shots which suggest that the images in it, and the lyrics, are not entirely sincere.
This is evident in the shots of the girl sitting on a bench next to 50 cent. Unlike the rest of the images, she is not highly glamorised, and her actions appear to be a lot more naturalistic than the others. She directly reacts to his lyrics, often looking away smiling, as though amused by what he is saying. The title of the song could also be referring to 50 cent himself as a celebrity figure: that both his image and his songs are merely an “amusement;” not to be taken as serious. This creates a sense of bathos juxtapositioned against the more professional looking shots, so that the female audience can relate more to the women shown.
Although taking up a lot less time in the video than the glamorised ones, it creates a distance between the hyperreality of the rest of the video, and the ordinary more down to earth shots, so audiences see the video more objectively. The shots of the girl lying provocatively on the car bear even less relation to the lyrics than earlier in the video, being more reminiscent of a car commercial than a music video. The car itself is briefly but distinctly focused on, which makes reference to the importance of money and material values which are present in not only video, but the whole hip hop industry.
This hints at the suggestion that both the girls and their representations are merely a product of this, and therefore are not in fact serious degradations of the women. In this shot we see a girl, while impressed; rolling her eyes at the artist at the lyrics “You know it’s no fun without the magic stick”. In this sense the girls are in fact the more active ones in the video, whilst 50 Cent mostly maintains his position as an entertainer. Instead of them covering the whole screen, two similar shots of the same girl are often slid in from either side against a plain black background, sometimes overlapping each other.
Whilst in one sense emphasising the importance of the girls’ bodies, it also is highly self aware as product, as by seeing two separate views of one scene, it reminds us that it is a construction. Instead of taking itself too seriously, it makes explicit its intention of providing a sex appeal. A less prominent but important character in the video is the girl dancing acrobatically, and the only girl who is represented by her skill rather her sexuality – the camera barely focuses on her face.
On the surface, she seems to represent an entertainer at a fair (the bright flashing lights help to anchor this meaning), but it is possible to decipher alternate readings of her: certain comparisons can be drawn between the actions of 50 Cent and herself. She and he are the first people we see in the video, and she appears immediately after the artist announces himself: “50” and “Ferrari F-50”. The setting she is in is almost identical to that of 50 Cent’s. At times her dance moves mirror the lyrics of his, for example at “You fear heights when I’m high hell yeah I go low”, she can be seen to do exactly this.
In another shot she briefly does a boxing punch, followed by a similar view of 50 Cent looking macho. At the lyrics “yeah it’s like that” she mimes as though saying the words herself. In this sense she is the female counterpart to 50 Cent, and could be said to hold the power, in that she has little direct engagement with the audience, while Curtis has to explicitly put on an act to keep is position as an entertainer. This could allow women to from the perspective of her instead of the rapper, and thus 50 Cent himself becomes the object of the video instead of the subject.
As previously discussed, the initial purpose of this media text is to sell 50 Cent’s music, and this is done by providing the audience with representations they are familiar with: a stereotypical ‘gangster’, highly sexed girls, and also to be considered is the artist’s own sex appeal. Firstly, the subject of the song itself is 50 cent inviting girls (the audience) to attend his “amusement park”, and the lyrics describe the activities available to those who go, thus partially placing him as the object of desire. He is shown later in the song without a shirt on, with lighting focused in such a way that highlights his muscular physique.
An important issue is that of whether hip hop should be censored, else voluntarily toned down. In April 2007, a controversial incident occurred, involving Don Imus, the presenter of his radio show, which already had a reputation for its crude humour. In discussing a black female basketball team, he referred to the players as ‘nappy headed hos’. After floods of outraged complaints, his show was permanently removed from air, prompting wide discussion over the standards in the media, often with reference to hip hop. 0 Cent himself was involved in the subsequent discussion, but refused to agree to clean up his lyrics, using a politician involved in adult dating websites to make comparisons between standards in hip hop and that in supposedly higher society. While this may be true to some extent, it firstly does not provide a justification in itself; but also it is debatable as to how much of what he said was his own opinion and how many were prearranged arguments by his managers (in the video he can be seen grinning in long pauses after phrases such as “I personally believe”).
On the subject of Master P, who made the decision to stop using sexist and violent lyrics, he replies “Well Master P doesn’t sell CDs anymore”7. From this, and other interviews where he has put the focus on that of entertainment, one could draw the conclusion that the artist in fact, as Amusement Park suggests, concerned with little other than the money involved in the business. In defence to his own lyrics, 50 Cent has also expressed his irritation of apparent double standards in the media, in reference to Britney Spears’ single ‘Gimme more’8 beginning with the lyrics ‘it’s Britney, bitch’.
While it may appear to be merely a sore complaint, it is certainly valid to discuss the treatment of women in other areas of the media, and by women themselves. The music video of the song in question consists of Britney Spears, wearing little more than underwear, dancing round a poll in a seedy setting. Similarly, in ‘Dip it Low’ by Christina Milian, the artist is seen allowing herself to have black paint poured over her semi-clothed body, whilst a group of men stand at the side watching and jeering: the presentation of women apparent in male hip hop videos is not a unique one.
In all aspects of the media girls are presented, more than anything, by their sexuality and appearance, which can be found in adverts in women’s magazines, stereotypes in film and television (a notable example being Desperate Housewives), car adverts, drink adverts. Although elevated within the genre, this representation could be described as a reflection of attitudes prevalent in both the media and in society and therefore not so shocking to audiences.
Another issue described by an internet blogger9 is that by shutting sexism and violence portrayed in hip hop music, it is shutting off a fundamental way of keeping these issues in the eye of the public. He quotes that the leading killer of African Americans is homicide; and that males are five times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts. These issues will still exist even in the absence of offensive hip hop. While this certainly an interesting point, hip hop paradoxically glorifies the very things which it makes an issue of.
While artists like 50 Cent may primarily be driven by selling as many records as possible, he still in one sense continues to represent issues which would otherwise be forgotten, if only in a postmodern way. Therefore, in order for hip hop to serve this purpose, it is essential that audiences neither directly embrace the values shown in the videos, nor take it as purely entertainment, as Amusement Park evidently does allow us to do.
However, audiences could be said to be becoming increasingly desensitised to these things, with violent films and video games and the huge availability of pornography through the internet, which would make this reading more difficult to achieve. Whether or not the sexism and violence in hip hop is justified or not, if audiences were to take a more active role in their media, it would simultaneously prevent potential influence from such songs, and also make thorny issues in black society more accessible to deal with.